15th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Bringing the World to Fulfillment

The Good Samaritan, Aimé Morot, 1880
Musée des Beaux-Arts de la ville de Paris

Which of these three, in your opinion,
was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?”
He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.”
Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
(Luke 10:36–37)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Colossians 1:15–20
July 10, 2022

Our second reading for the rest of the month will be from the “Letter to the Colossians”. We read Colossians once before and an introduction can be found in the commentary for last Easter. It was written around the same time and place as the letter to the Ephesians, which we read last year, and shares some of its themes. There is some debate if Paul wrote these letters himself or if they should be credited to disciple after his death. This is not of great consequence as it does not change the situation or the message. We will for the sake of convenience say the author was Paul. More certain is that it was to a mixed audience of Jewish and Christian born believers and that he is answering philosophical or cosmic questions.

Our reading today is in the first chapter of the letter. It is a song. Indeed, the congregation might well have been familiar with the basic hymn before the letter but the hymn may have been written by Paul.

He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation.

(Col 1:15)

From the Greek word we are translating as image (eikon), we also get icon. Although used more widely now in a secular sense, icons originally were pictures of Jesus, Mary or the Saints in the Eastern Church and were “windows” to the reality of the sacred. Sacrament would come closer to our understanding in the west. When we meet Jesus in the flesh, we meet God.

For Paul, this means that Jesus was the agent of both creation and recreation. Paul will call him the firstborn both here and in verse 18. The church was still struggling to create a language to express the reality of the Trinity. Firstborn does not mean that Jesus was a creature even the first of creatures but that he shares the power and honor of the Father as would a firstborn son.

Paul brings this out in the next line:

For in him were created
all things in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible,

(Col 1:16)

What we translate as “For in him” would be more clearly expressed as “By or through him.” Jesus created the universe and is above it. Paul tolerates no ambiguity on this point. He includes the celestial (heaven), the terrestrial (earth), the physical (visible), and the spiritual (invisible). He finds it necessary to be even more specific with the spiritual.

whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers;
all things were created through him and for him.

(Col 1:16)

Ancient peoples believed that there were many spiritual—non-bodily beings. Some we would now call angels, but others were ruling spirit, They were not necessarily demonic but not worthy of worship either. Early in the Bible we read in Deuteronomy:

When the Most High apportioned the nations,
when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of the gods

(Dt 32:8)

These were the ruling spirits of nations and peoples. Paul is clear that as Jesus created them, they are subject to him:

all things were created through him and for him.

(Col 1:16)

More than subject, they were created for him. Even the ruling spirits of pagan nations will be fulfilled only in him.

Not only did he create all things, but he also maintains them in existence.

He is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.

(Col 1:17)

This is not a new insight for Paul. He expressed it earlier to the Corinthians:

Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods
in heaven or on earth—
as in fact there are many gods and many lords—
yet for us there is one God, the Father,
from whom are all things and for whom we exist,
and one Lord, Jesus Christ,
through whom are all things
and through whom we exist.

(1 Cor 8:5–6)

Yet creation was not enough. Because of our sin we needed to be recreated.

He is the head of the body, the church.
He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead

(Col 1:18)

This recreation was through his body, the Church. Church for Paul usually means the individual churches, closer to parish for us. Here it means all the communities formed in Jesus’ name throughout the world whether formed by Paul or not. Notice he is very clear that the Church is non-negotiable.

Just as Jesus was the agent of creation as “firstborn” so now he is the agent of creation by being the firstborn from the dead. He is thus preeminent, not only the beginning of creation but now seen ever more clearly in his redemption the goal as well.

This is because he is identical with the Father.

For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell

(Col 1:19)

The fullness is God, and it refers to Jesus as the means by which the invisible and almighty Deity can contact humans. Before this the closest was the temple. A good example of many can be found in the Psalms:

Why do you look with envy,
O many-peaked mountain,
at the mount that God desired for his abode,
where the LORD will reside forever

(Ps 68:16)

and through him to reconcile all things for him,
making peace by the blood of his cross

(Col 1:20)

This was through creating a covenant relationship. For Jews, this required a sacrifice which Jesus offered on the Cross. This is a very specific and necessary event which created peace. As we have seen many times before, this Peace is shalom, which in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is called the kingdom. True peace is harmony between God and humanity, humanity itself, and humanity and nature.

The healing of the cosmos was and indeed is a universal dream. Paul is telling Jew and Greek alike that it can be fulfilled only by adopting a Jewish mind set and only by accepting the sacrificial death of Jesus.

The great vision of Colossians and Ephesians is that Jesus will not only heal divisions between God and humanity and those among us but will bring the cosmos into order as well.

In our decaying physical environment, it is difficult not to think of creation peace as creation care. Certainly, this is imperative and true, but Colossians shows us that there is more to this.

Paul wrote long before humanity had the ability to destroy the world. Yet he thought that even the animal indeed the inanimate world needed to be fulfilled perhaps better transformed. Paul speaks of this in Romans as well:

The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now
The suffering of creation is like birth pangs
leading to a glorious new world,
rather than the death pangs of a dying creation.

(Romans 8:22-23)

Through the Church with Jesus at the head, the world will be brought to fulfillment. As we see throughout the scriptures, this is already occurring but not yet complete. As we read Colossians, we will discover that this will be found not only in peaceful streets but clean skies.